“Despite my firm convictions, I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.” – Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
X asked, “Are you open-minded?” My answer was direct and immediate, “Yes”, without thinking much about what he meant by open-minded. In every way, I believed I was open-minded, and I still do.
But what exactly does it mean to be open-minded, and what should it mean? Let’s review what some people over the years think about open-mindedness, my view and of course how my friend, X, and some others see this clause.
Starting with the dictionary, the two dictionaries which I use define ‘open-minded’ closely but yet differently. Oxford says, “willing to consider new ideas’, whereas WordNet says, “ready to entertain new ideas”. Although these two definitions mean essentially the same thing, Oxford proposes an inherent possibility of the open-mind absorbing the new idea, whereas WordNet implies that the open-mind will allow the new idea pass through. I feel more comfortable with the WordNet definition, and that’s what I’ll take as my basic meaning of open-mindedness, and that’s what I meant when I said, “Yes”.
“That’s good”, X said, “I like the fact that you are open-minded”. “Yes, it’s good to be open-minded”, I added. However, judging from the events that occurred in the following days, X’s understanding of this concept definitely was not the same as mine. Eventually, there was a conflict, a huge one, drawn from simply understanding open-mindedness differently. You see, my friend believed open-mindedness was not just a readiness to consider or entertain new ideas, but also to absorb and engage in the new idea. No Sir!
X: I’m quite surprised that you say you’re open-minded, yet unwilling to engage in this ‘new idea’. Are you shy?
Me: No, it has nothing to do with being shy. What you do is your business and I’m totally fine with it. If you want to have a discussion about it, ok. But I have no intention of being a part of it.
I believe each man has what he stands for and why he stands for these things. In as much as his belief is not the same as mine, I do not stand in a position to judge or put him down but rather, I am willing to listen and know what he stands for. This helps me to see and understand the difference between his beliefs and mine. I’m open-minded to having you do whatever it is that you engage in and even have a discussion about it but it does not have to culminate in me accepting your views or you mine. Essentially, my open-mindedness is drawn not from a willingness to change and accept the idea but from a desire to learn and grow.
Whilst Malcolm X puts wonderfully his reasoning for open-mindedness as is in the opening quote of this post, David Niven puts his as, “Never stop learning and adapting. The world will always be changing. If you limit yourself to what you knew and what you were comfortable with earlier in your life, you will grow increasingly frustrated with your surroundings as you age”. And John Maynard Keynes says, “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?” With a closed-mind, there is no way to receive this new information and even if you do not want to alter your conclusions, when information changes, you need to alter your defence of your conclusions.
With all this talk, open-mindedness seems the way to go right? Well, not exactly!
“To be open-minded interminably is not a virtue. It is a failure to think, a failure to learn, a failure to decide and perhaps a failure of nerve.” ― Roy Hoover
“An open mind is all very well in its way, but it ought not to be so open that there is no keeping anything in or out of it. It should be capable of shutting its doors sometimes, or it may be found a little draughty.” – Samuel Butler
“By all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.” ― Richard Dawkins
“You can have such an open mind that it is too porous to hold a conviction.” – George W. Crane
“The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.” ― Terry Pratchett, Diggers
This last quote here, describes exactly what my friend X tried to do.
I keep an open-mind does not mean I allow both the wheat and chaff to lie in there. All pass through, but I absorb the wheat and sieve off the chaff ‘tout de suite’.
“The problem with open-mindedness is that it can become empty-mindedness” wherein you are in a situation where you do not have a position of your own, but rather listen to all and question all and you stand and tilt as the wind blows.
But, should one be open-minded to all things? Yes and No is my answer to this question, supported by the words of the literary genius C.S Lewis (a good friend of J.R.R Tolkien), “An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about the ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or of Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut. He can say nothing to the purpose.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
For me, to the popular question, ‘What if God is not supreme?’ In as much as I may be willing to listen to your reasons for thinking that, you stand no chance of lessening my conviction that God is supreme. I do that, only in an attempt to see things from where you stand so as to be able to strengthen my position.
The message in all this though is tolerance, understanding and reasoning. For interestingly, I have another friend Y, whom I love dearly but then shares quite a similar opinion in this case with X. We talked about it a few times, and I can say, I still do not fully comprehend the reasons for having such a stand or accept it but we laugh about it, and importantly I have learnt a lot about why people have that stand. The world around us changes, and nothing we choose to believe or not, or do or not will stop change from happening, what we must master is how to grow as that change around us occurs.
I’ll conclude with a paragraph of Jeff Mason:
“Dogmatism breeds intolerance. Like ideology, dogmatism puts blinders on what its adherents can see, disables their questioning faculties, and breeds fervour and fanaticism. … Having an open mind does not mean that one never comes to any convictions in life. It is perfectly possible to have an open mind and live a very principled life, without holding one’s beliefs dogmatically. Having an open mind means being prepared to question even your most central beliefs if there is occasion to do so. It means being open, when the time comes, to having your mind changed by an argument better than one’s own. It means being able to think both sides of an issue, both the side you think is true and the side you think is false. It also means being able to suspend your beliefs, to play devil’s advocate, and to detach yourself somewhat from your own beliefs, actions and feelings. Only living with an open mind gives us a chance to grow and change, for change is inevitable, while growth, unfortunately, is not”.
PS: As a bonus, if you read the post to the end (or just skipped to the end) and were wondering what exactly X’s ‘new idea’ was, it was homosexuality.